The Dark Ages (or Dark Age) is a term with two distinct meanings. It can be used to denote a historical period whose events are relatively obscure because of a lack of knowledge, with the term "Dark" being used in the sense of "obscure" or "opaque" . This has been applied to anything from periods in human history, to periods in the history of the cosmos, to the history of life on earth.
More specifically as applied to European history, the term Dark Ages denotes part or all of the 900-year period between the fall of the western Roman Empire in 410 and the revival of classical Greek and Roman culture embodied in the Renaissance. This concept of a "Dark Age" was first created in the early 14th Century by the historian Petrarch and was intended as a sweeping criticism of its supposed lack of cultural achievements. To understand why the period was first called "Dark," with its negative connotations, it is helpful to know when, how and why the term was invented, as well as how it has been variously used in the 700 years since its inception.
Note: For other historical labels of the Dark Ages see also Late Antiquity, Early Middle Ages, Great Migrations, Middle Ages and the "Other labels for the Dark Ages" section below. For a general discussion of attempts to categorize or divide historical time into discrete named blocks, see Periodization.
Origin and history of Dark Ages concept
To understand how the concept of the Dark Ages originated it is helpful to understand how the people of the time saw their own place in history. Most scholars of Late Antiquity followed St. Augustine (5th century), who believed history had six stages, and that they were living in the sixth and final stage of history. In this phase the end of earthly man was expected after Christ returned to earth, and the events of Revelation and the end of the world could happen at any time. This idea was prevalent for nearly 900 years.
Origin of the Dark Ages concept
How did the concept of the "Dark Ages" come about and why? It is generally accepted that the term was invented by the 14th century Italian Renaissance humanist Petrarch in the 1330s. Writing of those who had come before him, he said that "amidst the errors there shone forth men of genius, no less keen were their eyes, although they were surrounded by darkness and dense gloom" (Petrarch, De sui ipsius et multorum ignorantia)1. Religion up until then had used the traditional metaphor of "light versus darkness" to describe "good versus evil." Petrarch was the first to coopt the metaphor and give it secular meaning as a humanist by reversing its application. Classical Antiquity, so long considered the "dark age" for its lack of Christianity, was now seen as the age of "light" because of its cultural achievements, while Petrarch's time, lacking such cultural achievements, was now seen as the age of darkness.
Why did Petrarch call it an age of darkness? Petrarch spent much of his time traveling through Europe rediscovering and republishing the classic Latin and Greek texts. He wanted to restore the classical Latin language, art and culture to the original Roman ways, because any changes that had happened since the fall of Rome in 410, as humanists believed, were not worth studying. Humanists saw the 900-year period as a time of stagnation. They saw history not in the religious terms of St. Augustine, but in cultural (or secular) terms, through the progressive developments of Classical ideals, literature and art.
Petrarch wrote that history had had two periods: the Classic period of the Romans and Greeks, followed by a time of darkness, in which he saw himself as still living. Humanists believed one day the Roman Empire would rise again and restore Classic cultural purity. The concept of the European Dark Ages thus began as an ideological campaign by humanists to promote Classical culture, and was therefore not a neutral historical analysis. It was invented to express disapproval of a period in time, and the promotion of another.
By the late 14th and early 15th Century humanists such as Leonardo Bruni believed they had attained this new age, and a third, Modern Age had begun. The age before their own, which Petrarch had labeled "Dark," had thus become a "Middle" Age between the Classic and the Modern. The first use of the term "Middle Age" appears with Flavio Biondo around 1439.
History of the Dark Ages concept
Historians prior to the 19th century wrote about the Middle Ages with a mixture of positive and negative, but mostly negative sentiment.
During the Protestant Reformation of the 16th and 17th Century, Protestants wrote about it as a period of Catholic corruption. Just as Petrarch's writing was not an attack on Christianity per se—in addition to his humanism he was deeply occupied with the search for God—neither of course was this an attack on Christianity, but the opposite: a drive to restore what Protestants saw as a "purer" Christianity. In response to these attacks Catholic reformers developed a counterimage, depicting the age as a period of social and religious harmony, and not "dark" at all.
During the 17th and 18th century, in the age of Enlightenment, religion was seen as antithetical to reason. Because the Middle Ages was an "Age of Faith" when religion reigned, it was seen as a period contrary to reason, and thus contrary to the Enlightenment. Immanuel Kant and Voltaire were two Enlightenment writers who were vocal in attacking the religiously dominated Middle Ages as a period of social decline. Many modern negative conceptions of the age come from Enlightenment authors.
Yet just as Petrarch, seeing himself on the threshold of a "new age," was criticizing the centuries up until his own time, so too were the Enlightenment writers criticizing the centuries up until their own. These extended well after Petrarch's time, since religious domination and conflict were still common into the 17th century and even beyond, albeit diminished in scope.
Consequently an evolution had occurred, in at least three ways. Petrarch's original metaphor of "light versus dark" had been expanded in time, implicitly at least. Even if the early humanists after him no longer saw themselves living in a "dark" age, their times were still not "light" enough for 18th century writers who saw themselves as living in the real "age of Enlightenment," while the period covered by their own condemnation had extended and was focused also on what we now call Early Modern times. Additionally Petrarch's metaphor of "darkness," which he used mainly to deplore what he saw as a lack of secular achievements, was now sharpened to take on a more explicitly anti-religious meaning.
In spite of this, the term "Middle" Ages, used by Biondo and other early humanists after Petrarch, was the name in general use before the 18th century to denote the period up until the Renaissance. The earliest recorded use of the English word "medieval" was in 1827. The term "Dark Ages" was also in use, but by the 18th century tended to be confined to the earlier part of this "medieval" period. Starting and ending dates varied: the "Dark Ages" were considered by some to start in 410, by others in 476 when there was no longer an emperor in Rome itself, and to end about 800 at the time of the Carolingian Renaissance under Charlemagne, or to extend through the rest of the first millennium up until about the year 1000.
In the early 19th century, the Romantics reversed the negative assessment of Enlightenment critics. The word "Gothic" had been a term of opprobrium akin to "Vandal," until a few self-confident mid-18th century English "goths" like Horace Walpole initiated the Gothic Revival in the arts, which for the following Romantic generation began to take on an idyllic image of the "Age of Faith." This image, in reaction to a world dominated by Enlightenment rationalism in which reason trumped emotion, expressed a romantic view of a Golden Age of chivalry. The Middle Ages were seen with romantic nostalgia as a period of social and environmental harmony and spiritual inspiration, in contrast to the excesses of the French Revolution and most of all to the environmental and social upheavals and sterile utilitarianism of the emerging industrial revolution. The Romantics' view of these earlier centuries can still be seen in modern-day fairs and festivals celebrating the period with costumes and events (see "Renaissance fair").
Just as Petrarch had turned the meaning of "light versus darkness" on its head, so had the Romantics turned the judgment of Enlightenment critics on its head. However, the period idealized by the Romantics focused largely on what we now call in English the High Middle Ages, extending into Early Modern times. In one respect this was a reversal of the religious aspect of Petrarch's judgment, since these later centuries were those when the universal power and prestige of the Church was at its height. To many users of the term, the scope of the "Dark Ages" was becoming divorced from this period, now denoting mainly the earlier centuries after the fall of Rome.
Since the Romantics there have been advancements in archaeology and a flowering of archival research and interest, starting in the later half of the 19th century, which have uncovered additional material not available to previous scholars. Among other things this research confirms that the period Petrarch branded the "Dark Ages" was far from an era of stagnation, culturally or even technologically, not even in its earlier centuries.
Modern academic use
Regardless of any negative connotations, to those with neither Petrarch's specific concerns nor his precise periodization in mind, the term "Dark Ages" is expressive in a different sense today. Namely, the events of centuries before the High Middle Ages often seem "dark" to us, due to their paucity of historical records compared with later times. Late 5th and 6th century Britain for instance, at the height of the Saxon invasions, might well be numbered among "the darkest of the Dark Ages," with the equivalent of a near-total news blackout compared with the Roman era before or even with the centuries following. Further east, the same was true in the formerly Roman province of Dacia, where history after the Roman withdrawal went unrecorded for centuries as Slavs, Avars, Bulgars and others struggled for supremacy in the Danube basin, and events there are still disputed.
In this sense of "obscurity," "Dark Ages" is not a pejorative term, and is restricted to the earlier part of the Middle Ages—not the entire period Petrarch conceived—while to some (though not all) the term "medieval" (or "Middle Ages" itself) implies mainly the latter part of that period. Historians today also use terms such as "Late Antiquity" and "Early Middle Ages" or "Great Migrations" to describe this earlier period. Consequently, while usage of these terms varies, including from one place to another (see below), one trend has been for the two terms, Dark Ages and Middle Ages, that were once synonymous in the minds of early humanists to be differentiated and applied to two distinct (if consecutive) periods. Ironically, while Petrarch's concept of a "Dark Age" corresponded to a mostly "Christian" period following pagan Rome, what most users of the term label the "Dark Ages" today are those least Christianized, when events in parts (though not all) of Europe were dominated by the activities of pagan tribes.
Depending on country of origin, historians will call Petrarch's "Dark Age" different names. For example in English, Russian and Icelandic speaking countries it is called the Middle Ages (plural), meaning there are sub-groups such as the Early Middle Ages, High Middle Ages and Late Middle Ages . By contrast, in most major European languages—French, German, Spanish, Italian—where a large majority of research of the period originates, it is spoken of in the singular, Middle Age, and not broken into subgroups. This creates confusion on what the timeline of the period is, so it is often safe to assume, without other context, it means the entire period from the fall of Rome in 410 through to the start of the Italian Renaissance in the 14th Century. In a three-period view of history (Antiquity, Middle, Modern) the period would end in 1500.
Modern popular use
In modern times, the term "Dark Ages" is still used in popular culture. Petrarch's ideological campaign to paint the Middle Ages in a negative light worked so well that "Dark Ages" is still in popular use nearly 700 years later. The humanists' goal of reviving and revering the classics of antiquity was institutionalized in the newly forming Universities at the time, and the schools over the centuries have remained true to their humanist roots. Students of education systems today are familiar with the canon of Greek authors, but few are ever exposed to the great thinkers of the Middle Ages such as Peter Abelard or Sigerus of Brabant. While the classics programs remain strong, students of the Middle Ages are not nearly as common: for example the first medieval historian in the United States, Charles Haskins, was not recognized until the early 20th century, and the number of students of the Middle Ages remains to this day very small compared to the classics. Film and novels often use the term Dark Age with its implied meaning of a time less civilized than our own. Most modern films are almost universally "dark" in subject matter and tone, focusing on the negative perceptions of violence. For example in the film Pulp Fiction a character says "..I'm going to get medieval..". Clearly in this case "going medieval" does not mean reconcilling faith and reason through the study of Thomas Aquinas, and thus negative perceptions are further reinforced through popular culture.
Historians today consider the negative connotations of the word "dark" in "Dark Ages" negates its usefulness as a description of history. Yet Petrarch's concept of it, like that of other early humanists after him, as a discrete period distinct from our "Modern" age, has endured, and the term still finds use, through various definitions, both in popular culture and academic discourse.
Other Dark Ages
In the Ancient Near East there are consistent gaps in structures, writing or works of art at many urban sites between 1200s BC and 850s BC, known as the "Dark Ages" of the Ancient Near East. More specifically, the term 'Greek Dark Ages' is also used for the period in the history of Ancient Greece between the 12th century BC and 9th century BC from which no records, and only scant archaeological evidence, survive.
In cosmology's Big Bang theory, the term dark ages refers to periods of comparatively little starlight emission, during the early formation of the universe. This would have occurred after decoupling and before the first burst of star formation.
- "What else, then, is all history, but the praise of Rome?"—Petrarch
- "Each famous author of antiquity whom I recover places a new offence and another cause of dishonour to the charge of earlier generations, who, not satisfied with their own disgraceful barrenness, permitted the fruit of other minds, and the writings that their ancestors had produced by toil and application, to perish through insufferable neglect. Although they had nothing of their own to hand down to those who were to come after, they robbed posterity of its ancestral heritage."—Petrarch
- "My fate is to live among varied and confusing storms. But for you perhaps, if as I hope and wish you will live long after me, there will follow a better age. When the darkness has been dispersed, our descendants can come again in the former pure radiance."—Petrarch
- "The Middle Ages is an unfortunate term. It was not invented until the age was long past. The dwellers in the Middle Ages would not have recognized it. They did not know that they were living in the middle; they thought, quite rightly, that they were time's latest achievement."—Morris Bishop, The Middle Ages (1968)
- 1Theodore E. Mommsen, "Petrarch's Conception of the 'Dark Ages'", Speculum, Vol.17, No 2. (Apr.,1942), pp.226-242.